Though women constitute more than half of the world's population, they rarely get a fair representation in most fields. However, in Pakistan, the music industry has always been an equal opportunity 'employer' and women have led the way in this area since the country's inception.
Some say Noor Jehan is to Lollywood what Lata Mangeshkar is to Bollywood — that's not true. No one can be what Noor Jehan was to music all over the subcontinent ... in fact, Lata ji herself said she was greatly influenced by Noor Jehan!, “She was better than everyone else at that time. Listening to her songs helped me get my Urdu diction right.”
Similarly, in his autobiography '... and Pran”, legendary Indian actor Pran sahib, who played Noor Jehan's hero in Khandaan (1942) wrote, that in reply to some Pakistani students' query about a possible solution to the Kashmir issue he said, “You want Kashmir? Well, you take Kashmir, but in its place you will have to give us Noor Jehan!”
In spite of such adulation Noor Jehan gave up a golden career as a singer/actress in India to settle in the newly-created Pakistan where there was no film industry at the time. This same devotion later motivated Madame to lend her vocals to rousing patriotic numbers during the '65 war which, it is said, she sang free of charge. Songs like Aye puttar hatan tay and Aye watan kay sajeelay javano, which went on to become part of our cultural heritage, are perhaps Madam's greatest legacy.
But there have been many others in the business who defied great odds to conquer the hearts of the listeners. Nasim and Shamim Nazli, two sisters with music in their veins, ventured into filmdom in the '60s; Shamim went on to become a little-known music composer but it was Nasim, better known as Mala, who achieved super stardom with numerous hits, the most memorable being Akele na jana, from Armaan, which music composer Sohail Rana had composed with Madam in mind! Mala ranked among the top three playback singers of her time with songs like Dil deta hai ro ro duhayee from Ishq Par Zor Nahin, Bhooli hui hoon dastaan from Do Raha and many more.
By the late '60s Runa Laila's youthful voice was all the rage with super hits like Dil dhadke main tumse, Aap dil ki anjuman main from Anjuman, Kaate na katay ray from Umrao Jaan Ada, Hamain kho kar from Ehsaas, Saawan aaye from Chahat, Mera babu chail chabeela and Dinwa dinwa main gGinoon from Mann Ki Jeet, along with countless other songs that were way ahead of their time.
Naheed Akhtar, Mehnaz and Nayyara Noor were some of the other leading ladies of the world of film music in the '70s and '80s but by the end of the decade, apart from Humaira Channa, Pakistani film music lacked a strong female voice. It was only with the arrival of Shazia Manzoor in the '90s that female vocals again topped the popularity charts. Suno suno, bolo bolo and Main ne tujhe khoya from Chief Saab, Aaye meri aarzoo and Kahan tha yeh haseen chehra from Inteha and Woh eik hai lakhon main from Deewane Tere Pyar Kay helped establish Neeli, Meera and Gia Ali as leading heroines.
Taking a step back, the '80s were indisputably the decade of the dazzling Nazia Hassan who crooned her way into our hearts with the looks of a diva and the voice of a nightingale. Disco deewane was an overnight sensation and her journey of excellence continued through Boom boom, Dosti, Dum dum dee dee dum dum, Pyaar dyan gallan and ended with Dil ki lagi which proved to be her last hit in the '90s.
Nazia also holds the distinction of being the first Pakistani artiste to receive the coveted Indian Filmfare for Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi main aaye in Feroz Khan's Qurbani (1980). She left the music scene in the mid '90s and her millions of fans forever in 2000, leaving a vacuum that would never be filled.
Nazia and Zoheb's success inspired a number of 'Nazia clones' which provided the listeners with a great deal of variety, if not quality. Only two — Hadiqa Kiani and Farieha Pervez — survived because, unlike the Benjamin Sisters and Huma Khawaja (formerly of the Symphonies), they carved a niche for themselves and developed their own unique style.
But things are looking up for Pakistani pop again with the arrival of Zebunnisa Bangash and Haniya Aslam, commonly known as Zeb and Haniya. The Pushto-speaking female group has been termed as a cross between alternative, folk and local pop. Although some may debate that Annie (of Princess fame) is the new female 'icon' of the Paki pop scene, Zeb and Haniya definitely have a larger fan following.
Though their success in the field of pop is fairly recent, female artistes have always been a force to reckon with in the classical genre; and the most revered of them all was undoubtedly Malika-i-Mauseeqi, Roshan Ara Begum. Daughter of the great Ustad Abdul Haq Khan, Roshan Ara was linked to the Kirana Gharana, and was undoubtedly their most outstanding female disciple. Her most famous work includes her ragas — “Bahar, Basant, Bhatiyar, Des, Jaunpuri, Jhinjhoti, Madhuvanti, Maru Bihag, Maru Sarang” etc. She also rendered her vocals for the best music composers of her time, for classic films such as Pehli Nazar, Jugnu, Qismat and Neela Parbat.
Other stalwarts of the classical genre were Malika Phukraj of the Abhi to main jawaan hun-fame, whose daughter, Tahira Syed, later carried the torch, and the recently deceased Iqbal Bano whose timeless hits like Tu lakh chalay ri gori, Dasht-i-tanhai mein, Hum bhi to paray hain raahon main and Hum dekhen gay grant her immortality.
Malike-i-Ghazal, Farida Khanum, the last of her generation of classical maestros, is a legend in her own time. No mehndi ceremony can be complete without her Balay balay, and her soulful rendition of Woh ishq jo hHum se still has the power to move an audience to tears. Last year she became the first ever performer from Pakistan to perform in the Indian occupied Kashmir.
Munni Begum is a name that is in a class of its own. Though she does not belong to any gharana, her following rivals even that of a top pop star and she has been belting out hits like Ik baar muskurado, Aaye mere hamnasheen and Awargi main for the past 30 years. Tina Sani is yet another artiste who has worked hard to establish herself as a serious singer and is now ranked as a leading classical artiste, mainly through her marvellous renditions of Faiz and countless hits like Koi baat karo, Bol kay lab azaad and Dasht-i-tanhai.
Thinking of folk music always brings two names to mind, Reshma and Abida Parveen. While Reshma was one of the first stars from Pakistan to venture into Bollywood through Lambi judayee in Subhash Ghai's Hero in the '80s, Abida Parveen became an icon in the field of Sufi music with her soul-stirring kaafis.
But be it classical, pop or folk, Pakistani music is all the sweeter and richer thanks to the numerous female artistes whose golden vocals have combined to give it a beauty that touches the heart and refreshes the soul.
1. The maestro of mystic music - Abida Parveen
2. Nazia Hassan's memory lives on
3. Madame Noor Jehan - a legend in her own time